A storm is coming: crisis looms for workers unless we change the rules
Our union’s capacity to resolve the issues our members face is frustrated by Australia’s current broken industrial laws.
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary Sally McManus sent a resounding message in her landmark speech to the National Press Club in March: it’s time to change our industrial rules and restore a fair go for all Australian workers.
Ms McManus outlined that Australia’s industrial landscape had given rise to flat-lining wages, rising inequality and restrictions upon workers to bargain for fair wages and conditions — labelling the current industrial climate a national crisis.
Ms McManus said the rules for bargaining are incredibly complex and stacked against workers.
“Employers are organising their entire workforces to avoid bargaining all together by using labour hire, subsidiaries, franchises and outsourcing,” she said.
“Even when workers can bargain, the rules limit their power and protect employer’s interests above all else.
“The ‘nuclear option’ of employers simply terminating agreements has become commonplace and means that all bargaining is conducted under the threat of loss of all previously negotiated wages and conditions.
“This has to end.
“We need to give power back to working people to organise and win improvements to their pay and conditions in fair negotiations with their employers.”
In closing her Press Club address, Ms McManus reiterated the only way workers could change the rules and improve their working live was by joining their unions.
“If you want to be part of a movement for change, if you think everyone should pay their fair share of tax, if you want a job you can count on, if you want fair pay rises, if you want the rules to change, then join your union,” Ms McManus said.
What we need to create change: More secure jobs Fair pay Enforceable rights Returning power to workers
In order to enable this change, we need changes to laws and industrial rules that would improve workers’ lives, including:
- An overhaul of the bargaining system to make it easier for employees to bargain for better wages and conditions;
- The right for casual employees to transition to continuing employment if they choose to;
- Restoring penalty rates; and
- Improving minimum wage and award conditions for the country’s lowest-paid workers.
What happened to wage growth?
Wage growth is flat-lining.
Assistant governor of the Reserve Bank Luci Ellis has noted that new collective agreements lately have “tended to involve smaller wage increases than the ones they replaced”.
She noted that because these agreements are in place for a number of years, if wage growth is to pick up, wage increases for other workers — including in future agreements or in other wage-setting streams — will need to pick up.
However, the current wage increases received by employees under collective agreements are in decline.
One of the reasons for this decline is the frustration union members face due to the structural issues occurring within the bargaining process.
When first implemented, collective agreements were meant to make modern awards redundant.
However, contemporary collective agreements are creating wage growth rates that are lower than that of their previous agreement. Additionally, an increasing number of employers are seeking to terminate agreements altogether — effectively putting employees back on Award rates and the minimum of conditions.
Restrictive industrial processes
Union members who want their voices heard have to fight through a system that has created a torturous process for taking protected industrial action.
Even when all the “boxes are ticked” under the laws — timeframes adhered to, administrative duties diligently executed and majority votes achieved — employers are still able to drag out mischiefs.
We need not look further than our own sector for proof.
Employers use laws to their advantage
In 2016, Queensland Catholic school employers were relentless in their attempt to frustrate members’ ability to take protected action.
Our union ticked every box to ensure the protected action followed the correct process.
Part of the protected action was a ban on attending staff meetings.
However, employers seemed set on their agenda to stop members’ voices being heard, and began an argument surrounding the definition of “staff meeting” — a challenge to what should be a self-explanatory term.
Our union recognised a staff meeting to be just that: a meeting of staff.
However, employers disagreed, and insisted that the term “staff meeting” only applied to meetings of whole-of-school staff.
The employers’ challenge was an intentional attempt to obstruct protected action and disengage workers from the collective bargaining process.
The employers’ refusal to acknowledge any definition of a staff meeting other than their own led to a challenge in the Federal Circuit Court where the employers were prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars on legal representation and assistance all to create distraction, and disregard their responsibility to listen to their employees.
Our union will be taking action to address this looming crisis and ensure that we Change The Rules.
To learn more about the campaign go to www.changetherules.org.au